It seems fitting that Saint Gemma Galgani’s feast day falls on Divine Mercy Sunday this year. She was, after all, a saint who longed to make others aware of the great mercy of our Lord. In her diary she wrote, “Let us run to Jesus, Heart of Love, Heart full of tenderness. Let us ask Jesus to give us the riches of His pure love—to breathe only for love, to live only for love.”
Saint Gemma’s hope was that by encountering Christ’s mercy, people would turn from their sins and to the cross — the cross which Gemma spent most of her life meditating upon. She was no foreigner to suffering. In fact, suffering was such a defining experience of this young saint’s life that she became known as the “Daughter of the Passion” because of her profound union with Christ’s Passion.
Born in Camigliano, a small village near Lucca, Italy, on March 12, 1878, Gemma was the fifth of eight children. From a young age, she was an obedient child who had an earnest desire to be one with the Lord. Her mother arranged for her to receive the sacrament of Confirmation at the age of eight. Shortly after, her mother died. This would be the first of many painful moments in Gemma’s life. Not long after that, Gemma’s brother died and her father went bankrupt, leaving the Galgani family in extreme poverty.
During this time, Gemma developed a painful spinal illness, making it difficult for her family to care for her. Saint Gabriel Possenti, an Italian Passionist priest to whom Gemma had a great devotion, appeared to her in a vision. She was told to pray a novena to him for her healing. On the ninth day of the novena, after a vision from Jesus, she was miraculously healed.
After her cure, Gemma longed for nothing more than to become a Passionist nun, but due to her proclivity to illness, the religious order denied her request. Though this rejection inflicted more pain upon her young heart, Gemma surrendered her will to God’s will and trusted Him. She resolved to spend her life meditating upon the suffering of our Lord.
In 1899, at the age of 21, Gemma received an outward manifestation of the suffering of Christ — the holy stigmata. The stigmata is a grace given to someone in which he or she bears all or some of the wounds of Christ. The wounds typically coincide with intense physical and spiritual suffering, conforming the recipient further to Christ.
Gemma wrote the following about her first experience with the stigmata, which occurred every Thursday to Saturday for a year:
On June 8th after Communion, Jesus told me that that evening He would give me a very great grace… Evening came, and all of a sudden, earlier than usual, I felt an interior sorrow for my sins, far deeper than I had ever experienced before. In fact, it brought me very, very close to death. After this, all the powers of my soul became recollected. I could think of nothing but my sins, and the offense that they gave to God. My memory recalled all my past sins to mind, and made me see all the torments that Jesus had suffered in order to save me. And my will made me detest them, and promise to be willing to suffer anything in order to expiate them. My mind was flooded with thoughts; thoughts of sorrow, of love, of fear, of hope and of comfort. Following this interior recollection, I was quickly rapt out of my senses, and I found myself before my heavenly Mother. At her right stood my guardian angel, who told me to make an act of contrition. When I had finished it my blessed Mother said to me “Daughter—In the name of Jesus, your sins are forgiven.” Then she added: “Jesus my Son loves you very much, and He wishes to give you a grace. Do you know how to make yourself worthy of it?” In my misery I did not know what to answer. She continued “I will be your Mother. Will you be a true daughter?” She then spread her mantle and covered me with it. . . At that moment Jesus appeared with all His wounds open, but blood no longer came out of those wounds. Rather, flames of fire issued forth from them and in an instant these flames came to touch my hands, my feet and my heart. I felt as if I would die. I fell to the floor, but my Mother supported me, keeping me covered in her mantle. I had to remain several hours in that position. Finally she kissed me on my forehead, and all vanished, and I found myself kneeling on the floor. But I still felt an intense pain in my hands, feet and heart. I arose to go to bed, and I then noticed that blood was flowing from those parts where I felt pain … The sufferings continued until 3pm on Friday afternoon, the solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Eventually, after about a year of enduring the stigmata, Gemma began to physically deteriorate and become ill. Her spiritual advisor told her that she should pray to be relieved of these sufferings. She obeyed and her prayers were answered. The stigmata ceased. In the places where the wounds had been, white marks remained.
In January 1903, Gemma contracted tuberculosis, which would be the cause of her death. On April 11, 1903 — Holy Saturday — Gemma’s suffering in this world ended and she entered into eternal peace.
Different as these two saints are, their core values and spirituality are similar. We can meditate on three particular values of the lives of Saint Gemma Galgani and Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton to inspire our own spiritual life.
The Need for God’s Mercy
Like Gemma, Elizabeth Ann Seton was keenly aware of the cost of her own sins and she desired to grow in Christ-like virtue. Elizabeth wrote, “Solemnly in the presence of my Judge, I resolve through his grace, to remember my infirmity and my sin; to keep the door of my lips; to consider the cause of sorrow for sin in myself and [in] them whose souls are so dear to me as my own.”
Jesus does not expect us to be perfect, but He does expect us to resolve to become more like Him. In order to do that, we must first acknowledge our faults and be aware of the consequences of our actions. Indifference to our actions and our faith separates us from the love of God.
Giving All to Jesus Through Mary
Although their vocations were different, Saint Gemma and Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton had a passionate devotion to being wholly united to Jesus — particularly through the heart of Mary.
Though Gemma could not love Jesus behind cloistered walls, she would still devote her whole life to him. She wrote: “I wish to be all and only of Jesus, and what is there to love on this earth now that I possess Jesus? World, creatures, all you are no longer for me, nor am I for you, and so I cannot love you and will not love you more.”
Elizabeth similarly wrote after receiving Jesus in the Eucharist for the very first time, “At last…at last, GOD IS MINE AND I AM HIS! Now, let all go its round — I Have Received Him!”
Like Saint Gemma, who comprehended Mary’s great love for her children and her desire to protect them and draw them closer to the heart of her Son, Elizabeth recognized Mary as a sure way of uniting herself to Jesus. Elizabeth wrote, “How can we honor the mysteries of our Jesus without honoring Mary in them all?”
Indeed, we cannot. Like Saint Gemma Gilgani and Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, may we also turn to Mary as an intercessor of grace. By drawing closer to our Blessed Mother, we draw closer to her Son.
Suffering United to the Cross
Both Gemma and Elizabeth suffered great losses and illness in their lifetime. In fact, tuberculosis was the cause of both of their deaths. Contrary to our current culture, which often encourages us to value comfort over sacrifice, Gemma and Elizabeth united their sufferings to the cross.
Indeed, this practice was a defining characteristic of both women’s lives. They truly understood that their suffering, united to the cross, was not without merit, but would draw them closer to the heart of God. Elizabeth wrote, “The reward of sacrifice is peace.”
During this season of Easter, may we remember that the joy of the resurrection comes to us through the cross. We will all endure our Good Fridays, but the light and joy of the empty tomb is never far from sight.
Image: Le Seraphique Gemma Galgani courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
CAITLIN SICA received her MA in Theology from the University of Notre Dame. She currently teaches Theology at Bishop Guertin High School in Nashua, NH. You can read more of Caitlin’s writing at www.caitlinsica.com.